Every other recent headline in cannabis relates and points out to the numerous growth and attention that female consumers are a large majority of the buying power in the cannabis market here in the United States. But there’s also an under-the-radar population of female cannabis consumers that isn’t as openly talked about: pregnant women*.
VICE sits down with four mothers and ask them about their usage during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, women endure many of the health issues medical marijuana is often prescribed for, be it nausea via morning sickness, loss of appetite, anxiety, and more. But to many, using cannabis while expecting is akin to pre-natal child abuse, and some doctors (and lawmakers) may even consider pregnant marijuana use worthy of a call to child protection services.
But the facts about cannabis effects on fetuses remain unclear. A report issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment earlier this year found that THC is indeed passed to children through the placenta and breast milk. Among the report’s findings was “mixed” evidence of cannabis association with low birth weight, and “moderate” evidence that cannabis during pregnancy is associated with infants suffering from attention problems, cognitive impairment, or low IQ.
This week, however, the American Medical Association agreed to push for regulations that require medical and recreational cannabis products to include the message “Warning: Marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding poses potential harms.” This is less severe than the warnings on tobacco or alcohol products, but the move is still disconcerting to some who think the message is premature.
Cannabis supporters, on the other hand, like to point out a 1994 study focused on newborns in Jamaica as proof that bud and babies aren’t really a bad combination. Due to limited research and a lack of long-term studies on cannabis’s effects on fetuses, though, we still don’t know a whole lot on the subject.
Using cannabis while pregnant may be less damaging than alcohol, but it’s arguably more of a taboo. Yet even with the stigma attached, certain soon-to-be mothers are still down to hit the vape. VICE spoke to four women (whose names have been held) about why cannabis benefited them during pregnancy, how their husbands encouraged usage (while their doctors didn’t), and if they ever worry if cannabis has affected their children’s development.
VICE: What was the timeline of your pregnancy like? Shauna: I got pregnant in April 2014 after losing a baby at about ten weeks in March 2014. I gave birth to a healthy baby girl in December of 2014. I used a midwife because I wanted a natural childbirth and I had been very unhappy with the OB’s office I used for my first pregnancy.
Will you tell me about your experience using weed while expecting?
We lived in a state with no legalized medical or recreational cannabis use for the first four months of my pregnancy. During that time, I was vomiting so much that I had to go to the emergency room at least once every week (though sometimes as often as three times a week) for IV rehydration. My doctor prescribed me Zofran, but for most of my pregnancy my insurance company wouldn’t cover it, and it cost about $11 a pill. Cannabis was about $20 a gram and it let me actually eat something. The only time I ate during those months was the few times I was able to find someone to buy cannabis for me. Four months into my pregnancy, we moved to Colorado and it became a much easier process—we were literally a five-minute drive away from a dispensary.
So you used cannabis for morning sickness? Did it help?
The medical term for what I suffered is “hyperemesis gravidarum,” which is a fancy way to say I was throwing up so much that it was a danger to my health and the health of my baby. Marijuana did help. Immensely. I don’t think I would have made it through without cannabis.
Did you seek advice from your OB or midwife about this? What did they say?
After we moved to Colorado, I did ask my midwife about it. She recommended using it, but as a midwife she couldn’t actually give me a Red Card, so I just bought it from a recreational dispensary.
How did you consume the cannabis? Any strains work better than others for the morning sickness?
I used a vaporizer because the coughing from smoking made me throw up more and edibles would just get thrown up before they had time to work. I don’t remember any of the strains that I used, but none were any more effective than the others, really.
VICE: What do you do for work, and do you live in a state where cannabis is legal? Nora: I live in North Carolina. It’s definitely illegal here, with most offenses being felonies, though possession of up to an ounce and a half is a misdemeanor. I’m married with a one-year-old daughter and we actually have another baby on the way that’s due in May, 2016. I work in the office for the owner of a fast food franchise. I do paperwork and operational tasks.
What was your relationship with cannabis like before you got pregnant?
Before I ever really smoked pot I kind of looked down on people who did, and especially expecting mothers. I just thought, How could you do drugs while you’re pregnant? Then I went to college and learned on my own that marijuana is not a “drug” in the conventional sense. I started smoking regularly and I actually became good friends with quite a few women who smoked while pregnant. It changed my opinion completely as I knew these women cared for their children and there seemed to be no lasting effects on the kids.
What was your usage like during your first pregnancy? Did you use it recreationally, or was it to help with pregnancy symptoms?
During most of my first pregnancy, my usage didn’t change at all. I smoked every morning before work and a few times more throughout the day. I had morning sickness and I know that it’s normal for women to lose weight from it, but I just really didn’t like the idea of my baby going without nutrients, so I did smoke to help with my appetite and to make sure I wasn’t throwing up everything I ate. My worst symptom was how emotional I was, though. At the start of my first pregnancy, I was managing a restaurant and most interactions with customers would reduce me to tears. It was awful, but smoking helped me just chill out and roll with the punches. I could actually work my job without being a sobbing mess.
Did you face any judgment from friends or your partner for using cannabis, or were they into it?
My husband encouraged me to continue smoking because we both personally believe that it’s not harmful. Some of my friends would have had a negative opinion about it, so I just didn’t tell them. My best friend and I were pregnant at the same time. She was a military wife and smoked the whole way up until the day she delivered. I did get a lot of judgment from my doctor’s office, though. They told me flat out that if I tested positive while I was in the hospital, child protective services would get involved and I wouldn’t be taking my baby home. I stopped smoking at around seven months. It was mostly OK, but my appetite definitely took a hit for a few weeks.
I understand the doctors’ concern, but it’s not alcohol. They don’t test me for alcohol at every visit and that would actually do damage, so I think it’s pretty hypocritical.
Were you drug tested at the hospital when you delivered your baby?
Yes, they did drug test me and, to my knowledge, only the eight and nine month tests came out negative. But they were so hellbent on it while I was in the hospital. They tried to make me pee when I first got there, but they didn’t bother to check me first. I was eight centimeters dilated so it just wasn’t happening. I had no complications whatsoever, but after my daughter was born and before they would let me get up out of bed to walk around, they gave me a catheter purely to do my urine screen. While they were doing the catheter my doctor asked: “Is this urine screen going to be negative?” I said “yes,” and my doctor said “Are you sure?” It was pretty insulting.
Are you using cannabis during your current pregnancy?
This time around I’ve already quit because I just don’t want to deal with the hassle. I do think it’s ridiculous. My daughter was perfectly healthy and though doctors don’t want to hear my anecdotal evidence of “well my kid turned out OK,” I also think that when it comes to marijuana, I should have the power to make the decision on my own. I understand their concern, but it’s not alcohol. They don’t test me for alcohol at every visit and that would actually do damage, so I think it’s also pretty hypocritical.
VICE: Walk me through the timeline of your pregnancy. Danielle: We conceived around Christmas, 2014, though I found out five weeks later—yay puking! The baby was born in September, 2014.
Will you tell me about your experience using cannabis during pregnancy?
I was initially against the idea of it, mainly because of the stigma surrounding smoking while pregnant. However, after three weeks of keeping almost nothing down and craving a sandwich… I smoked for the first time. Just a couple hits. I sat back, ate half a sandwich, and it didn’t come back up! I think I napped after. I smoked a few more times after that because I was still puking almost every 20 to 40 minutes during weeks four through 15 and had lost about 20 pounds. When I smoked, I could eat and nap. It helped keep food down and was better than Zofran. Honestly a life saver. By the third [trimester] I was doing well enough to not need it.
Did you seek advice from your OB about this? What did they say?
I didn’t, mainly because I didn’t have that magical connection with her as many people do. She was just there to make sure the baby was good and prescribe me meds! She wasn’t even there during the birth.
Did you face any stigma from friends or your partner for using cannabis, or were they supportive?
Most were very supportive. My husband is actually the one who encouraged me to smoke. A friend actually smoked with me once before we went and got pancakes. They all knew I wasn’t doing it to get high. I was taking a few hits purely for the fact that I wanted to keep food down.
Do you think it affected your child at all?
I don’t think it had any effect. My child is much like any other one-year-old. He loves to climb and bounce. He runs around chasing the animals. He sings and dances.
VICE: Tell me about yourself and your pregnancies. Nicole: I’m in my early 30s and I have a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl with my ex and a three-year-old girl with my current husband. He and I have been together for six years and I’m a stay-at-home mom.
What was your relationship like with marijuana before you got pregnant?
Before I got pregnant with my first child, I was a daily smoker—multiple times per day.
How did your smoking change during your first pregnancy?
I actually quit as soon as I tested positive. But about a week later I got hit with morning sickness. Everything made me nauseous. I ate mostly crackers for those first few weeks. After I while, I started taking a few hits in the evening so I’d be hungry enough to eat dinner. I don’t think I smoked after I began the second trimester. At one of my initial prenatal appointments, I told my doctors about occasionally smoking. They said a little weed wasn’t great, but it was better than not eating.
Your child was born healthy, correct?
He was quite healthy. Still is. He is tall, and brilliant. I breastfed him for about 11 months before he weaned himself.
But you decided not to use marijuana during your second pregnancy, correct? Why was that?
Access. Plain and simple. My ex had the weed connections, not me. I left him three days after I found out I was pregnant with my second child. I went into a domestic violence shelter which was a high security place, and I didn’t want to risk getting caught with weed and losing the roof over my and my son’s head. Morning sickness was particularly bad with my second pregnancy. If I had had the opportunity to smoke a bowl I would have.
*VICE and MARY does not support any type of substance use while pregnant, and would not suggest using cannabis while expecting until there’s more research on the potential harm available.